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14 September 2020

Covid-19’s Christmas triple threat

Record foodbank use could coincide with mass redundancies and a second wave of the virus this winter. 

By Anoosh Chakelian

From supermarket panic buying to the footballer Marcus Rashford securing meals for schoolchildren over the summer break, access to food has been a constant challenge for coronavirus-stricken Britain.

The number of hungry households has been drastically increasing, rising by 81 per cent in the final two weeks of March alone, with foodbanks in the UK recording their busiest ever month in April, when demand was up 89 per cent on the same time last year.

Despite the UK emerging from national lockdown since then, with an easing of rules for all activities bar socialising, hunger remains one of the pandemic’s gravest side effects.

Foodbanks are forecast to give out six emergency food parcels a minute this winter, with a 61 per cent increase in emergency packages needed across the UK in October to December, according to new research by the UK’s biggest foodbank network, the Trussell Trust, and modelling by the I-SPHERE team at Heriot-Watt University. Their findings estimate that 846,000 three-day emergency food parcels are likely to be distributed by foodbanks in the last quarter of 2020. This is 300,000 more than the same period in 2019.

Although food poverty was a growing problem before Covid-19 began spreading in the UK, Trussell Trust data shows that there was a disproportionate increase under lockdown among households with children (95 per cent more of which received foodbank parcels in April 2020), and over half of households (52 per cent) that needed support from a foodbank in April had never used one previously – meaning almost 100,000 new households went hungry during lockdown.

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A winter of record foodbank use coincides with the conclusion of the furlough scheme, which ends on 31 October. This could be one contributor to the wave of half a million redundancies expected this autumn, according to analysis of Insolvency Service figures by the research group Institute for Employment Studies. That figure is far higher than the jobs lost at the height of the last downturn in 2008. The Institute for Employment Studies analysis suggests job losses could reach higher than 700,000.

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See also: Why the UK is sleepwalking into a jobs crisis

Hunger, redundancy and the prediction by UK doctors of a second wave of the virus itself in the next six months, represents a triple threat to the public’s wellbeing and the economy over Christmas.

Yet this scenario is not inevitable. The Labour Party is urging the government to extend the furlough scheme in certain sectors to avoid mass unemployment, and the Trades Union Congress has also issued a plea to prolong the scheme to prevent “a tsunami of job losses”.

In addition, the government could use the upcoming Budget or the Comprehensive Spending Review to maintain the £20 per week increase in Universal Credit it introduced at the start of the pandemic, change the system of benefit debt repayments (the deduction to claimants’ incomes if they have had an emergency “advance payment”), and invest £250m in local welfare assistance (the ever-dwindling help distributed by councils) in England, according to Trussell Trust analysis.

Some 700,000 people are likely “to be pulled into poverty” if the temporary Universal Credit increase is dropped in the autumn Budget, and around 16 million people are at risk of losing £1,040 in benefits per year in April 2021, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Indeed, increasing the generosity and flexibility of the welfare system could be the government’s most effective tool to prevent what is shaping up to be a winter of discontent.